How Ontario Can Get De-Streaming Right
By Amin Ali
Equity in education is a moral imperative. Every single student regardless of their colour or creed, ethnicity or economic standing deserves to succeed. However, for decades this has not been true for Black students in large part due to academic streaming.
The Ontario government’s de-streaming announcement is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve Black student success, so it’s essential we do not de-stream for appearances’ sake — but de-stream right.
I’m a Black student that survived the system, giving me lived experience in barriers faced. I remember my Gr. 2 teacher treating me as incompetent, sending me off for needless assessments and EA sessions and singling me out in class, and my Gr 3 teacher treating me with such hostility that I was denied washroom breaks and my mom had to step in. I also went through K-12 without a single teacher that looked like me, depriving me of role models.
I’m also a former Student Trustee with the TDSB and Policy Officer at the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, giving me an inside understanding of the system complexities and stakeholder perspectives that need to be considered for de-streaming.
With these experiences, it’s clear to me that de-streaming is essential to improving Black student achievement but is not a magic bullet in-and-of-itself. For effectiveness, de-streaming must be coupled with funding for new resources, system-level equity reforms, engagement with experts, and accountability.
New Funding A Necessity
First and foremost, effective de-streaming will not happen on the cheap; the province must provide new funding. New dollars will support new resources like smaller class sizes which I know first-hand deeply matters.
Math has always been my Achilles heel, but small classes got me through elementary and Gr 9 math. My teachers had time to answer questions and I didn’t have to compete with a sea of people for extra help. This changed dramatically in Grade 10, where while in academic math, I experienced a transition from a class of 23 to around 40. I felt invisible in a crowd as an inundated teacher couldn’t provide the same extra help. I consistently didn’t grasp the material and fell behind, sending my stress into overdrive. Faced with declining marks and skyrocketing anxiety, midway through first semester I switched to applied math.
One model for smaller class sizes is in Quebec with its up to 40% smaller “economically disadvantaged area” classes. For instance, the regular Gr 4 class average is 24 and capped at 26, while economically disadvantaged averages are 18 and capped at 20. This provides educators extra time to support students facing the greatest challenges.
The need for new funding extends to wrap-around supports, since even in de-streamed classes students will face socio-economic barriers to achievement. One model for this is TDSB Model Schools for Inner Cities (MSIC). My elementary school was one of the inaugural 6 MSICs and it brought additional support staff, culturally responsive counsellors, healthy breakfast programs, free school trips, health clinics, after-school programs, and massive school technology upgrades. TDSB research found in tracking students into secondary “as a result of the MSIC program, the percentage of students attaining all grade 10 credits, increased by 19-28%”.
Ontario’s Teachers Reflecting Ontario’s Students
Beyond new funding, we need system-level equity change starting with the diversity of teachers. The gut-wrenching Peel review found that with a student population that is 85% students of colour, only 25% of teachers are racialized. That is a staggering disconnect. A largely white staff in all schools has had consequences for Black students as seen in the sobering anecdotes from Dr. Carl James’s brilliant 2017 report “Towards Race Equity in Education”.
Towards Race Equity in Education, Dr. Carl James
“When I got into university, one teacher was telling everyone that it was because of the principal. She said I wasn’t smart enough to get into university on my own” –Black student (Pg 51)
“Nobody knows what to do with bright Black students” (Pg 44)
My guidance counsellor didn’t want me to apply to the University of Toronto. When I insisted, she said, ‘Don’t be discouraged when you don’t get in.’ – Black student (Pg 52)
“The guidance counsellor was pushing me into Applied classes. She asked me to drop all my STEM courses. I had to stop going to the guidance counsellor and went to the VP to choose courses.” –Black student (Pg 43)
We need system-level teacher education and hiring reforms for de-streaming to produce real results. This way we can ensure teachers, especially in guidance departments, better reflect and understand the diversity of the students they serve. Without this, the same implicit bias, microaggressions, and “soft bigotry of low expectations” I’ve faced will persist and lead to streaming-in-all-but-name-only continuing through other routes.
Engaging with Partners
While the de-streaming announcement was encouraging, it was a major education change announced via the media with no apparent pre-consultation with partners. This kind of policymaking isn’t conducive to student success. De-streaming will only produce results if guided by those with expertise; this means listening to the education workers, board administrators, education researchers, and Black families who know first-hand what supports are missing and how the education system has failed Black students.
The formation of a central Partnership Table with all education stakeholders included will allow for all funding needs, systemic barriers & implementation challenges to come to light, paving the way for effective de-streaming.
No Progress Without Accountability
When this announcement came down, I was skeptical; real accountability requires action. Through disaggregated identity, achievement, and well-being data as well as concrete action through its uses in de-streaming implementation as recommended in the 2017 Education Equity Action Plan, monumental progress in Black student achievement is possible. Data will shine a light on barriers and Boards need to be mandated to integrate these facts and figures into multi-year strategic plans, school improvement plans and budget processes. This way Black families will have the mechanisms they need to hold the system to account.
Meeting the Moment
2020 has shone a bright and unyielding light on our world’s worst ills, and the awakening to anti-Black racism this has produced is nothing short of astonishing. We have a real and rare window of opportunity to make transformative and enduring change to the core pillars of our world — especially to our “reimagined” post-pandemic public education system. So let’s seize the moment and relegate anti-Black racism in schools to something Black youth learn in their de-streamed history classes of tomorrow; a relic of the past, rather than a lived reality they experience every single day, rain or shine.
Amin Ali is a Research Intern at People for Education. He is heading into his second year at the University of Toronto studying public policy & city studies and is on Twitter at @AminSSW